Driverless cars will not change society if the sensors that allow them to "see" their environment are still too expensive to produce at scale. Until recently, the only company that manufactured reliable LIDAR, the laser sensor that sends millions of laser points per second and measures how long they take to recover, was Velodyne. But that is changing. Waymo, the autonomous Alphabet unit, manufactures its own proprietary LIDAR. Cruise, the autonomous driving division of GM, recently acquired a startup called Strobe. And the latest rival, Luminar, has been cutting costs and escalating rapidly as it seeks to make its mark in this fast-growing industry.
Today, the company based in Silicon Valley made a lot of announcements with the intention of consolidating its status as "main player". It's revealing its newer LIDAR unit, with a 120-degree field of view, which is enough to see what's in front of the car, but you'd need a pair for a 360-degree view.
"This platform can scale to tens of thousands."
In addition, Luminar has increased its production capabilities, with a new unit that leaves the assembly line every eight minutes. That will give you the ability to dominate the auto industry and make autonomous vehicles affordable enough for everyone to buy.
"This platform can scale to tens of thousands," said Austin Russell, CEO of the company, "and finally it is something that can enable us to equip much larger autonomous fleets and allow our existing partners to expand their fleets."
The office of Luminar in Palo Alto.Photo: Luminar
Those partners include the Toyota Research Institute, as well as three other automakers that Russell declines to name. Luminar now has the ability to equip all the cars that are driven on the road with their LIDAR sensor, he added.
This is now possible, thanks to the growing manufacturing footprint of Luminar in Orlando, which is ground zero for the optics industry. The company recently opened a 136,000 square foot facility there, giving it the ability to manufacture 5,000 units per quarter by the end of the year. He is also staffing, adding Jason Wojak of Motorola as his hardware chief and Alejandro García de Harman to lead the manufacturing.
Luminar is also dramatically increasing the power of its LIDAR while reducing the cost required to build them, thanks to the acquisition of the Black Forest Engineering chip design firm (for an undisclosed sum). That team is in charge of manufacturing the Luminar receivers with indium and gallium arsenide (InGaAs) instead of silicon, which, according to Russell, makes Luminar's LIDAR look better and better without the risk of damaging the retinas of people.
Most LIDAR manufacturers use silicon to build their receivers because it is cheap. InGaAs is more expensive, but can detect light at a wavelength of 1,550 nanometers, which represents less danger to the human eye. Russell said that this makes his sensors 40 times more powerful than those of his competitors, and gives him the ability to see objects in the dark, even those that are extremely thoughtless. Luminar also lowered the cost of its receivers from tens of thousands of dollars per unit to only $ 3.
"We can have a LIDAR much better than the one that exists, which can finally allow the autonomous cars to reach the level of safety necessary to obtain that better level of human performance," said Russell. "Also from a cost perspective, it finally allows you to reach the scale that is required to be able to equip all types of vehicles, not only high-end travel-sharing applications, but even the lowest mid-range consumer vehicles."
It is a critical moment for the self-driven automobile industry, following a fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona, in which a Uber vehicle driving alone hit and killed a pedestrian. Naturally, this has raised many questions about the range, resolution and reliability of the sensors that robot car engineers use to power their vehicles. And since LIDAR is the most important ingredient in the complex soup of autonomous driving, companies like Luminar will likely face the brunt of these questions in the near future.
Russell said that LIDAR faces extremely high obstacles of reliability, and rightly so. "That's it, from how accurate is each measurement, the precision accuracy of that, the frame rate of the sensor, what is the field of view of how wide it looks, does it work in rain, fog and snow? Interferes with other? Sensors of this type, interferes with sunlight, is in a scalable architecture that can finally meet automotive volume requirements, has a safe supply chain, a low assembly time, eye safety, exportability, Automatic grade reliability, tens of hundreds of thousands of hours of reduced temperature ranges, and you still have to do it at a low cost, "he replied.
"Basically, if you lose one of those things that I just mentioned," he added, "it does not have a profit."